Jerry Garcia, the psychedelic front man of the Grateful Dead, was a musical pioneer with a legacy that still resonates to this day. He and his band were revolutionaries in the development of the long, flowing, and sometimes unorthodox style of music known as free-form jam. Unconsciously, they also developed a countercultural following known as “Deadheads.” Each year many of these enthusiasts would plan in advance to take off from their respective jobs just to catch a Dead show. Many fans even ditched their normal, everyday lives entirely to follow the band across America.
I never considered myself a genuine Deadhead. I did however, listen to the music often – New Speedway Boogie being a particular favorite of mine. Back in the early 90s, I also associated with a few people who did undoubtedly fall into the category of being true Deadheads. It wasn’t until years later that I finally got my chance to witness a live Grateful Dead show; this was after Jerry’s passing, unfortunately.
Like many fans of music and pop culture, I remember distinctively, still after 17 years, the day Jerry Garcia passed away. It was August 9, 1995 and I was 18-years-old. I had just graduated high school and acquired my first real job, thanks to a good friend of mine, Chad – may he also rest in peace. Not only did Chad help me land the job, but he also became my ride back and forth to work, or anywhere else I needed to go. At one time, we were inseparable.
It was about 3:30 or so in the afternoon that day when I heard a knock on my door. I lay half-sleeping on the couch which was in the living room of our two-bedroom mobile home. My Mom had her own room, and my younger siblings shared the other. I wasn’t home much so I established residency on the family sofa.
I got up, stumbled over, and answered the door, knowing it was probably Chad.
“Hey, man, come on in,” I said, looking at the rail-thin, 6 feet 4 inch specimen.
“Jerry Garcia died today,” he stated without hesitancy.
Much like any other time I’d ever received shocking news in my life, my world seemed to come to a deafening halt. I tried to rationalize what Chad had said to me. After a few seconds, my brain finally processed the information, but I was still having a difficult time understanding it.
In 1995, “breaking news” came at six and eleven o’clock on your TV’s news station. Or, if you were lucky, you might catch it on the radio. With that in mind, we were unsure if our Deadhead friends had heard about this pop culture tragedy. We talked it over and decided to load up in Chad’s maroon Monte Carlo and drive over to our friends’ apartment.
After arriving, we got out and, just as Chad had knocked on my door earlier and delivered the grim news to me, he and I were about to pass on this new, sad reality to our passionate Deadhead friends.
Their names were Brian and Jennifer. They were a young, married couple, somewhere around 22 or 23-years-old. After knocking only once, the door opened. Brian greeted us as always in his cool, spirited way.
“What’s up, guys?” he said. “Come on in.” He had a goatee and I always thought he resembled Denny Doherty of the Mammas and the Papas.
“Have you heard?” asked Chad.
Brian’s chipper demeanor led me to believe he had not heard the news.
“Heard what?” he answered, as we stepped inside.
“Man, Jerry passed away today,” I answered, still not believing it myself.
Just as my face had frozen earlier with confusion, Brian’s did the same. He paled instantly. He tried to force a smile, thinking that maybe we were joking, but he then saw the seriousness on our faces. His wife, Jennifer, was in the bedroom when Chad and I first walked into the apartment. She didn’t hear us tell Brian the horrible news. Brian walked backed to the bedroom to relay the message.
The tan, slender young woman with short brown hair emerged out of the bedroom with her husband. She appeared distraught and confused. Just like her husband, Jennifer also thought we were joking, possibly playing an evil prank. Realizing we were not, she reacted the only way her heart would allow her to: She broke down in a sorrowful, yet meaningful weep.
It was the first time that I had witnessed directly someone expressing grief over the death of a famous, iconic figure. I had seen numerous images on TV and in books and magazines of people mourning the deaths of Elvis Presley and John Lennon, but never anything up close like this. Her reaction was as genuine as I had ever seen. She cried hysterically – as if it were her father or favorite uncle who had died. Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead had touched her life in some unexplainable and very spiritual way.
“I guess this means no more shows,” she stated gloomily, after wiping her tears and regaining her composure.
I’m not sure what she was thinking, but I imagined her thoughts being like that of the many other followers of the Grateful Dead. Where would life’s journey take them now, without their leader steering them into the cosmos.
I didn’t know what to say. In fact, I don’t think there was much said thereafter – possibly a little reminiscing about the Grateful Dead and the music.
On that day, an unprecedented amount of people around the world received a startling jolt. Not only Deadheads, but also many other types of people from various walks of life now had a huge void to fill. The Grateful Dead indeed had a following like no other. I don’t think there has ever been a fan base with that much loyalty - and there probably never will be - at least I have yet to witness it.